This might seem like a simple question, but I'm not sure it definitely is.

What is the Subject, in its most likely reading, of the question:

  • What is the answer?

Is it the noun phrase (NP) What, or is it the noun phrase the answer?

How can we tell? In other words what evidence do we have?

I reserve the right as stipulated in the guidance to ask questions that I know the answer to. I ask the question because a good answer would be useful to point to in other answers and because I think the question of evidence is interesting enough in its own right

  • You should reserve the right to answer your own question if you know the answer. That said, this is a good question.
    – David M
    Sep 19, 2019 at 15:43
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    I was being snarky in an amused tone.
    – David M
    Sep 19, 2019 at 15:47
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    I feel refreshed and bolshy. I'm going to guess that any answer given as being 'correct' here makes assumptions that are perhaps unprovable (unless arbitrary tests are invoked). Comparison of this string with 'John pushed Jill' with an archetypal subject is so difficult/controversial that any conclusion may well be open to revision. Sep 19, 2019 at 19:00
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    I’m going to sidestep the entire discussion and suggest that the subject in “What is the answer?” is in fact the question mark at the end. Hang on while I go manuf--gather some evidence to back up this claim. Sep 19, 2019 at 20:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Actually, something very like your proposal is proposed by many generative linguists and similar (all quite thin on the evidence side, imo). This takes the form of a phonogically null Q morpheme sitting on the left periphary. It's not the subject, but who's splitting hairs? Wrong periphery too, but hey ... :) Sep 19, 2019 at 21:15

1 Answer 1


In this question, the answer is the subject.

Questions often reverse the typical syntactic order of noun then verb. Subject-auxillary inversion is frequently employed in English to form questions.

The question at hand can be dissected and reassembled as:

The answer is what?

Had it been phrased in this more awkward but grammatically correct manner, the subject is much more readily apparent.

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    42 ("what?") is the answer.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 19, 2019 at 16:03
  • @Mari-LouA What is the question! Sep 19, 2019 at 16:05
  • I see you have an interest in sci-fi !!! Sep 19, 2019 at 16:32
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    @Araucaria I got the DA reference immediately, but had to go old school Abbot and Costello
    – David M
    Sep 20, 2019 at 2:00
  • @Mari-LouA What are you suggesting in your reply "42 is the answer?" Do you mean "what" is the subject of "What is the answer?"?
    – Mcreaper
    Jan 26, 2022 at 18:57

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